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Ta-Nehisi Coates: “For African Americans, unfreedom is the historical norm”

On Monday night, the Atlantic published Ta-Nehisi Coates's "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration." The article, the longest the magazine has run in a decade, limns America's long history of believing African Americans are predisposed to lawlessness and using that assumption to justify a racist police state that locks up African Americans in huge numbers. It's an extraordinary intellectual history of the different ways white America has rationalized jailing huge swaths of the black population, going all the way back to the end of slavery.

But Coates doesn't stop at the prison's walls; His interest is in how mass incarceration has wrecked black families and communities and created the kinds of social maladies — one-parent households, widespread impoverishment, dangerous neighborhoods — that lead white America to believe more incarceration is needed.

On Saturday, I spoke with Coates about his latest article, his larger project as a writer, and the ways in which his own thinking on race, crime, and poverty has changed since he began his investigations. A transcript of our discussion, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Ezra Klein

I want to start by trying to put your latest piece on mass incarceration into the context of your larger project as a writer over the past four or five years. It feels like you’re trying to fill in the spaces in America’s memory between slavery and now. Do you think that’s right?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I think that’s a good way to look at it. It's funny — I didn’t consciously start a project, but I think it’s coming to that. What I think people think is slavery was horrible and then everything was okay — so why are we having these problems right now? When you just focus on slavery, it gives the impression that it was all good afterward. But there was an era of unfreedom that followed directly after that.

Ezra Klein

I thought the most powerful line in the piece is the one you just referenced, that "for African Americans, unfreedom is the historical norm." This might be a bit of a weird conversation, but at what point in American history do you think the condition of African Americans becomes more like freedom than it is like slavery?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

It’s tough. It’s probably around the Great Migration. After enslavement you have an attempt to restrict freedom as much as possible through vagrancy laws and sharecropping and the land-lease system and all that. And folks begin moving north, where they don’t find themselves so physically restricted. That might be the beginning of freedom, the ability to go to different places and say, "I want to hire out my labor for this much."

But I don't know how to answer that question. I suspect one could make a chart and you would see these gradations. Certainly we're closer to freedom now, sitting here in 2015, than we were in 1866. And we were closer to freedom in 1966 than in 1866. That can definitely be said.

Ezra Klein

In this piece, you describe a flywheel of racial inequality: Racism leads to impoverishment, impoverishment leads to imprisonment, imprisonment leads to more impoverishment, and so on it goes. And you get further and further down this road, and the effect of this cycle becomes a justification for it. It's this beautifully closed loop where the thing that's being done is also the justification for why it's being done.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I started this project looking at a fact that conservatives often brandish, and that’s that 70 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock.

To me, the answer looked pretty clear. I thought, you look at the imprisonment rate, and that’s where the men are; that made intuitive sense. But it turns out the research didn’t back that up. I can’t make that claim. And one of the things that some of the scholars challenged me on right away was that when you look at men who go to prison, it’s not prison that makes them low-marriage material. It’s five other things that have already happened to them. You've fallen into a pit, and prison is the trap door that closes over you. And then, once you're in the pit, crime becomes the excuse not just for your imprisonment, but for everything else that's wrong with you or your community.

Listen, logically there is no reason why, if I'm complaining about how James Blake was arrested, that someone should say, "What about black-on-black crime?" But any sort of complaint is met in that way. Crime justifies the pit.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Joe Posner/Vox) Joe Posner/Vox

Ezra Klein

Tell me about the pit. You said that by the time these men go to prison, five other things have already happened to make them low-marriage material. What are these other things? What makes up the pit?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

If you're African-American in this country, you're one or two generations out of Jim Crow, and so you’ve got parents and grandparents who missed certain education opportunities or couldn’t take advantage of certain home loan programs. Because of segregation, you live around other families just like you. You tend to go to a poorer school, or maybe you leave school early. So now you’re not that employable.

But let’s say you did complete schooling. The effect of mass incarceration is that employers tend to regard young black men with high school diplomas as if they were white men with criminal records. They regard them as being likely to have done some time in jail. So you have all of that going against you.

Then you go to prison. Prison makes you ineligible in certain states for public housing and food stamps; it will prevent you from getting jobs like barber or septic tank cleaner or mortician. And now you got all of this stacked against you. So climbing out of that pit, a pit that goes back to your parents and grandparents, becomes really, really difficult.

Ezra Klein

Let me ask you to back up on one thing here. This is going to be a simple question, but it's something I thought was present in your article but not spelled out. You have all this deprivation and abuse going on here. Why does all this lead to crime?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I had a mother and a father. Both college-educated. I saw way, way, way more violence than my social peers today who grew up in a relatively similar situation. And it’s not hard to figure out why. When I start thinking about the neighborhood I grew up in, and the housing laws that formed that neighborhood just 10 years before I was born, and the crooked system my grandmother went through when she tried to buy a home, it becomes clear that I was living in a community that basically had resources extracted out of it. We don’t really have an analogue for black communities in this country. There’s nothing like it.

One of the misguided things that happens in this country is people take poor African Americans and compare them to Latino households or Asian households just by looking at the income. In the piece, we use this notion from [Harvard sociologist] Robert Sampson called "compound deprivation." Sampson really looks at poverty in a much broader way. He doesn't just look at salary. He looks at wealth, at educational facilities, at exposure to drug use, at the chance of moving out of that neighborhood, at all of that. And then he compares neighborhoods. And when he does that, he figures out there really is no community like the African-American community.

Black people don't just tend to be poorer than the rest of the country. Black communities tend to be poorer. Poor black people tend to live around other poor black people in a way that isn't true in other communities. If you take a poor black person and a poor white person and look at the neighborhood they live in, those neighborhoods are not interchangeable. [New York University sociologist] Patrick Sharkey has this study where he shows that the average African-American family bringing in $100,000 a year tends to live in a neighborhood that looks like the neighborhood a white family making $30,000 a year lives in. That's such a major difference.

Ezra Klein

This is really interesting for me to hear. I'm a pretty close reader of your work, I think, but I hadn't understood until this discussion that the reason you focus so much on housing laws in your work is that your understanding of African-American poverty is so much about neighborhood composition. I don't think I realized how much of your work was trying to answer the question of why an African-American family making $100,000 a year is living in the same kind of neighborhood as a white family making $30,000 a year.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

We can do all sorts of psychoanalysis. That was my experience. That was my experience directly. It's something to live in a house with two parents, to see them working every day, and to turn on the television every day and see families with two parents living so differently than you. So maybe I’m trying to answer something deeper.

Ezra Klein

How does the way you think about poverty change when you think about it in terms of neighborhood composition rather than just income? Because I could imagine people reading this and saying, Well, I grew up in LA, and there's a Koreatown, and there's a Vietnamese area of Westminster, and this clustering isn't unusual. So how does the experience of black communities look distinct?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

That's a huge mistake that people make, including black people. People think the black ghetto was like any immigrant ghetto. But the black ghetto was shaped by federal policy. These are socially engineered neighborhoods. It’s not just that black people wanted to live around other black people.

So what does it change? Well, it makes it explicable. When I started out on this, I had these questions too. Why aren’t communities with the same income the same? What it’s revealed to me is the weakness of these indices. These are ways for us to not have to think about the environment, about the route they take to school, about the block. But you need to talk about people within the environment in which they live. You need to think about the effect of policy over time. And there's just a bright line of policy running through here. On all these indices of deprivation, the African-American community is so much poorer. And there is an easy answer to that; you can see it in the policy.

We’ve had this focus on police over the past few years. And behind each of these killings and brutalizations, you have this question of policy. But I don’t know if we’re ready to talk about policy. I think it’s a lot easier to talk about individual behaviors, to just say that if people would act better it would all be okay.

To me, that logic leads to racism. And let me try to make that plain for you, so I'm not being extreme. If you say the problem in the African-American community is a lack of individual responsibility, you’re talking about 40 million people. If you’re saying there’s less responsibility among those people, well, why would that be? And you say, a culture has developed in the last 30 or 40 years. But the problem is the crime rates have been higher in the black community at least since the time we came out of slavery. Was something wrong with the culture of those people, too?

It quickly and easily leads to the idea that something must just be wrong with those people. And I just reject that. I guess I have to reject that.

Ezra Klein

One thing about the crime rates in particular is that they strike really directly at questions of which kinds of individuals we feel sympathy for. In the piece, you write about Odell Newton, who is in jail for murder, and also nearly died from severe lead poisoning when he was 4. We know lead poisoning seriously degrades people's ability to manage impulses and control their actions. But we don't know how to integrate that into our theories of justice and punishment.

So we have a lot of sympathy for the African-American kid who graduates at the top of his class but only gets a job as good as the white kid who graduates at the bottom of his class. We really feel that something has been taken from him. We don't have sympathy for the African-American kid who got lead poisoning as a child and ended up graduating at the bottom of his class with a criminal record, much less the one who went to jail at age 16 for murder. We feel he made awful, even evil, choices, and now it's on him. We are, weirdly, most sympathetic to the people best equipped to deal with their situation in life, and we're hardest on the people who are worst equipped to deal with theirs.

And I think this is laced through a lot of the crime debate. We really think of crime as a choice people make. But it's often, at least in part, the product of poor impulse control, which can be the product of lead poisoning, and being in a high-crime environment, and all these other things that are not in a child's control.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is why I thought for this piece it was really important that it wasn’t about nonviolent drug offenders. I understand why politicians talk about that. But the fact of the matter is that’s not enough. I don’t think the appeal to the most sympathetic offenders really helps us deal with mass incarceration. Odell killed somebody. He shot somebody. That’s what he did. I think everyone I talk about did something violent. And that was intentional. Are we okay taking away their lives because they did something violent?

Ezra Klein

Something that I think is alive in this piece and alive in a lot of your work but that you don't talk about that much is the question of how much control we have over our lives versus how much control it is convenient to believe we have over our lives for the purposes of our national mythmaking.

It is very convenient to build a society atop the idea of meritocracy and social mobility. It's a really good psychological incentive set. But it's not honest. Because of the families people grow up in, the genes they have, the chemicals they're exposed to as infants, the teachers they did or didn't have in sixth grade, the sheer luck of their lives, people don't bring the same faculties to making life choices.

We don't know how to convince ourselves of the myth of meritocracy without actually believing in it. And I think it's the problem at the core of some of this.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

It's really tough. But it's why I have to go back to housing. I know this piece is about incarceration, but housing is the root of so much family wealth in America. I don’t know how people in America think of the middle class and don’t think about government policy. I don't know how that happens. The idea that this just came out of individual effort, that might explain some of it, but it can’t explain all of it. If you believe it explains all of it, you have to believe that the mass of black people just don’t work that hard. I find that so in opposition to my experience in African-American communities growing up, and to my experience in white communities now.

I have a friend who has a kid who was caught with drugs at school. The kid is white. The administrators wanted to kick the kid out of school. They were trying to put the kid into one of these schools for kids who get kicked out of schools. The parents went to those hearings, did everything in their power to keep the kid in his original school. They won. That kid is in a very, very nice college right now. That has nothing to do with the individual effort of that kid.

You can talk about that kid individually. But then it starts sprawling out into millions. That's the kind of room to make mistakes that millions of people have but another community of millions doesn't have. So I don't know how you don't talk about policy.

The point is not that individual responsibility doesn’t matter. It’s really important, for instance, in parenting. It’s how I deal with my son. But it doesn’t make sense to me on the societal level — not when you look at the actual policies that were passed in this country.

Ezra Klein

Why do you think there is this conversation about race in America right now? Why do you think you and your work are having this kind of moment? You write in the piece about cover stories the Atlantic ran decades ago that are basically the opposite of what you're writing today. So why is there space, at this point, for these kinds of discussions?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I think crime is down. That’s huge. But it's scary because we don’t know why crime went up or why it dropped. We have some theories about crack cocaine and about policing. But when crime went up in America, it went up in Canada and Great Britain and the Nordic countries and Australia. And when it went down in America, it went down in these countries too.

What the hell happened? Even the lead explanation can’t explain all that. It’s as if some natural disaster hit us. And what scares me about that is if crime goes up today, this entire conversation will be a casualty of it.

But even if crime did go up, our incarceration rate is so high. We were at 150 per 100,000 people locked up in the 1970s, and now we’re at about 700? How do we get back to 150? I mean, good god, how does that happen? Even if crime stays where it is, that’s a multigenerational project at least. It goes back to this idea of compound deprivation. People in that pit are taking losses this whole time. The pit is only growing deeper. The damages you incur because your dad was in jail, because you live in a community where lots of other dads are in jail, because of the kinds of things you were exposed to — we have nothing on the program to deal with these damages.

Ezra Klein

That gets to the end of the piece. It's really an echo of the reparations piece in a way I didn't see coming. It really argues that unless you can address the economic disparities that are powering the incarceration state, unless you can address the impoverishment that leads to incarceration, you can't really solve this.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah, I don’t think you can. If by some feat of magic we returned to 1970 levels of incarceration, it’s not enough for me to see those levels reduced but still see a 5-to-1, 6-to-1, 7-to-1 black-to-white incarceration ratio. How do you get to a place where the black-to-white incarceration ratio is 1-to-1? That hasn't ever existed in post-slavery in America. It’s never happened. But if that’s what you want ultimately to happen, that’s a bigger conversation than imprisonment. It's a bigger conversation than drug laws.


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